The City’s Light: How Lawrence Ferlinghetti Painted and Framed San Francisco

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was not born in San Francisco, but San Francisco, and more particularly its famously Bohemian neighborhood of North Beach, became the frame for his twin arts of painting and poetry. Eventually his adopted town acknowledged Ferlinghetti’s contribution to the local culture by making him its poet laureate. Central to his legacy and contribution to The City was the now world famous Columbus Avenue bookstore he founded in 1953. By the front door he inscribed a slight variation on a line by another Italian poet: “Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here.” The shop was called City Lights.

Light was one of the artist’s favorite themes. In an essay on his painting, he riffed off a line by a painter he admired:

“All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,” said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.

No stranger to darkness and despair, Ferlinghetti earned his habits of hope and illumination. He had been an orphan child, and was a veteran of the Normandy invasion. Toward the end of his three years in the Navy in World War II he visited Nagasaki just after its annihilation by atom bomb—an experience that made the poet a committed pacifist and a critic of “men of extinction.” His pursuit of light did not ignore such darkness. “The sunshine of poetry casts shadows. Paint them too,” he wrote.

Ferlinghetti died this past February, just a month shy, incredibly enough, of his 102nd birthday (March 24, also William Morris’s birthday). The changes his city saw in his seven decades there have left most wordsmiths flummoxed. In How to Paint Sunlight (2000) the wise poet and painter celebrated life on The Bay by describing the only thing that seemingly remained fixed:

The Changing Light

The changing light at San Francisco
                        is none of your East Coast light
                                          none of your
                                                                pearly light of Paris
The light of San Francisco
                                                is a sea light
                                                                      an island light
And the light of fog
                                    blanketing the hills
                        drifting in at night
                                     through the Golden Gate
                                                          to lie on the city at dawn
And then the halcyon late mornings
                  after the fog burns off
                          and the sun paints white houses
                                                          with the sea light of
Greece
                                with sharp clean shadows
                                      making the town look like
                                                    it had just been painted
But the wind comes up at four o’clock
                                                                    sweeping the hills
And then the veil of light of early evening
And then another scrim
                                when the new night fog
                                                                          floats in
And in that vale of light
                                           the city drifts
                                                                    anchorless upon the
ocean

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Finally, this being National Poetry Month, here’s a Ferlinghetti pearl to savor: “Poetry the shortest distance between two humans.” That’s but another way of saying, the arts are how we join the world.

Listen to Lawrence Ferlinghetti read the title poem from his collection How to Paint Sunlight…

Engraved stone, Ferlinghetti poem

A Ferlinghetti poem plaque in San Francisco’s Jack Kerouac Alley

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